Dear Secretary of Agriculture
By Consumers Union on Thursday, March 12th, 2009
Do you hesitate over that “grass fed beef” package, and wonder what “naturally raised” really means as you ponder the premium price? You are not alone. Last month we fired off a letter to Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, expressing our deep concern about a variety of meat marketing labeling efforts being undertaken at USDA. Click here to read the full letter.
Failure to act will allow food companies to keep getting away with misusing and overusing the “naturally raised,” “grass fed,” and “organic” labels on your food, while you pay more and perhaps know even less.
• “Naturally raised” label should be withdrawn
• Close loopholes in Country of Origin Labeling (COOL)
• Close loopholes in “grass fed” standard
• Harmonize meat marketing claims across meat, poultry and dairy items
• Define “raised without antibiotics” label claim
• Ensure consistency of “organic” label to scope of products covered
• Maintain “treated with irradiation” labeling for meat from irradiated surface cuts
Based on our November 2008 food poll, we know that you prefer labels with meaning behind them. For one, you expect meat labeled as “naturally raised” to mean the animals were not fed chemicals, drugs and animal byproducts. But food companies can get away with looser standards than you expect, and take advantage of loopholes. The status quo is troubling:
• Meat labeled as “naturally raised” means the animal could have been fed antibiotics, animal byproducts and growth hormones.
• “Processed” foods are exempt from country of origin labeling, which includes foods that are “smoked,” “roasted” or “cooked.” After the peanut contamination crisis we’re all more aware that knowing where our food comes from can help us buy safer.
• Companies that sell seafood are free to slap on the organic label, but the latest recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board would allow the use of open-net pens in the ocean which can release and absorb waste freely.
Our letter may have contributed to this encouraging item: a few weeks ago Vilsack told food industry representatives to voluntarily adhere to stricter COOL guidelines. The USDA says it will be closely reviewing industry performance with these suggestions.
We should continue to keep our food regulators in the loop about the changes we want from our food labeling system. Recently, we had a meeting with the Secretary of Agriculture’s office where we expressed a wide array of our concerns. We look forward to making progress with the USDA to repair our broken food system.
Obama’s recent nomination of Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture (the UDSA’s number two post) could get us closer to progress. We think that Merrigan is an excellent choice for the job, and we expect her to be a strong defender of USDA’s organic standards. Click here for some organic optimism by Jeff Nield at Treehugger. In short, he says, “Change is finally a comin’.”
Nevertheless, reforming our food safety system will be a huge task. What should Agriculture Secretary Vilsack do next?